Nurse practitioners (NPs) and physician assistants (PAs) have become a more prominent part of the hospitalist workforce, and at many institutions, they account for a large proportion of patient care and have a powerful effect on a patient’s experience. But NP and PA roles in hospital medicine continue to evolve – and understanding what they do is still, at times, a work in progress.
One myth that persists regarding NPs and PAs is that, if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.
At the 2018 Annual Conference of the Society of Hospital Medicine, Noam Shabani, MS, PA-C, lead physician assistant at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Hospital Medicine Unit, Boston, offered an example to help shatter this misperception.
Mr. Shabani described a 28-year-old woman who had a bachelor’s in biology with a premed track and spent 4 years as a paramedic before attending the physician assistant program at Duke University, Durham, N.C. As a new PA graduate, she was hired as a hospitalist at a community hospital in Kentucky.
Given this new PA’s clinical experience and formal education, there are certain skills she should bring to the table: the ability to develop a differential diagnosis and a good understanding of disease pathophysiology and the mechanisms of action of drugs. And because of her paramedic experience, she should be comfortable with making urgent clinical care decisions and should be proficient with electrocardiograms, as well as chest and abdominal x-rays.
But compared with a newly graduated NP with registered nurse (RN) floor experience, the PA is likely to be less familiar with hospital mechanics and systems, with leading goal of care discussions with patients and families, and with understanding nuances involved with transitions of care.
The subtle differences between NPs and PAs don’t end there. Because of the progressive policies and recently updated bylaws at the Kentucky hospital where the PA was hired, this health care professional can see patients and write notes independently without a physician signature. But because she practices in Kentucky, she is not allowed to prescribe Schedule II medications, per state law.
“This example demonstrates how nuanced and multi-layered the process of integrating NPs and PAs into hospitalist groups can be,” Mr. Shabani said.
Goals, roles, and expectations
Physician assistants and nurse practitioners have reported that their job descriptions, and the variety of roles they can play within HM teams, are becoming better understood by hospitalist physicians and administrators. However, they also have acknowledged that both PAs and NPs are still underutilized.
Tricia Marriott, PA-C, MPAS, an orthopedic service line administrator at Saint Mary’s Hospital in Waterbury, Conn., and an expert in NP and PA policy, has noticed growing enlightenment about PAs and NPs in her travels to conferences in recent years.
“I’m no longer explaining what a PA is and what an NP is, and the questions have become very sophisticated,” she said at HM18. “However, I spent the last two days in the exhibit hall, and some of the conversations I had with physicians are interesting in that the practice and utilization styles have not become sophisticated. So I think there is a lot of opportunity out there.”
Mr. Shabani said the hospitalist care provided by PAs and NPs sits “at the intersection” of state regulations, hospital bylaws, department utilization, and – of course – clinical experience and formal medical education.
“What this boils down to is first understanding these factors, followed by strategizing recruitment and training as a response,” he said.
Tracy Cardin, ACNP-BC, SFHM, associate director of clinical integration at Adfinitas Health in Hanover, Md., and a Society of Hospital Medicine board member, said that, even though she usually sees and hears about a 10%-15% productivity gap between physicians and PAs or NPs, there is no good reason that an experienced PA or NP should not be able to handle the same patient load as a physician hospitalist – if that’s the goal.
“Part of it is about communication of expectation,” she said, noting that organizations must provide the training to allows NPs and PAs to reach prescribed goals along with an adequate level of administrative support. “I think we shouldn’t accept those gaps in productivity.”
Nicolas Houghton, DNP, ACNP-BC, CFRN, nurse practitioner/physician assistant manager at the Cleveland Clinic, thinks that it is completely reasonable for health care organizations to have an expectation that, at the 3- to 5-year mark, NPs and PAs “are really going to be functioning at very high levels that may be nearly indistinguishable.”
Dr. Houghton and Mr. Shabani agreed that, while they had considerably different duties at the start of their careers, they now have clinical roles which mirror one another.
For example, they agreed on these basics: NPs must be a certified RN, while a PA can have any undergraduate degree with certain prerequisite courses such as biology and chemistry. All PAs are trained in general medicine, while NPs specialize in areas such as acute care, family medicine, geriatrics, and women’s health. NPs need 500 didactic hours and 500-700 clinical hours in their area of expertise, while physician assistants need 1,000 didactic and 2,000 clinical hours spread over many disciplines.
For NP’s, required clinical rotations depend on the specialty, while all PAs need to complete rotations in inpatient medicine, emergency medicine, primary care, surgery, psychiatry, pediatrics, and ob.gyn. Also, NPs can practice independently in 23 states and the District of Columbia, while PAs must have a supervising physician. About 10% of NPs work in hospital settings, and about 39% of PAs work in hospital settings, they said.
Dr. Houghton and Mr. Shabani emphasized that Medicare does recognize NP and PA services as physician services. The official language, in place since 1998, is that their services “are the type that are considered physician’s services if furnished by a doctor of medicine or osteopathy.”
Mr. Shabani said this remained a very relevant issue. “I can’t overstate how important this is,” he said.